Ann Arbor Pioneer had controlled the clock in the first half, and had it not fumbled into the end zone from the 2-yard line, it might have been tied with Saline at halftime instead of trailing by a touchdown.
That’s why after Saline’s Connor Hibbard opened the third quarter with a touchdown, it was time for kicker William Breen to do his thing.
“It’s something we work on all year,’’ Breen said. “It’s a special-occasion kick. We know we can get it when we do it at the right time.’’
It was the right time.
Breen executed and recovered an onside kick, which led to another Saline touchdown and sparked the No. 1 Hornets to a 37-21 victory over Pioneer on Friday night in a battle of unbeatens.
After Breen kicked the ball, Alec Richards and CJ Gildersleeve sprinted downfield to take out Pioneer players, and Breen pounced on the ball at the Pioneer 43-yard line.
“It means everything to me,’’ Breen said. “It’s just a time for me to shine and make a play for the team.’’
Ten plays later, Hibbard scored on a 2-yard run, and in just more than 6 minutes, Saline’s lead went from 14-6 to 28-6 before Pioneer ran a play in the third quarter.
“We knew they were eating a lot of time off the clock,’’ Saline coach Joe Palka said. “We felt it was important to steal a possession in the second half. We keep it in our pocket for games like this against teams that really control the clock and have a strong running game.’’
With junior running back Antjuan Simmons, who received an offer from Notre Dame to go with offers from LSU and Ohio State, Pioneer (5-1, 3-1 SEC Red) was only a play away from breaking a long run.
But the onside kick and ensuing score changed Pioneer’s approach on offense.
“We knew at some point they would do that,’’ coach Jari Brown said. “It was a big play in the game. We had a chance, we were getting some momentum going into the third quarter, and the onside kick was a killer for us.’’
Because of the score, Simmons was limited to 16 carries and 82 yards rushing. But he showed his flat-out speed when, as a linebacker, he picked up a fumble on defense and sprinted 65 yards for a touchdown.
“He’s a great player; I give him a lot of credit,’’ Saline quarterback Josh Jackson said. “He’s very fast, very athletic and didn’t get tired. He seemed like he kept going. He can move.’’
Jackson gained 80 yards on 14 carries, and his two touchdown runs enabled Saline to take its 14-6 halftime lead. He also completed 15 of 19 passes for 143 yards and kept the Pioneer defense on its heels.
No. 8 Pioneer, which also got a 70-yard TD run from Jordan Harris, is a dangerous team, but it made too many mental mistakes to beat the No. 1 ranked Hornets (6-0, 4-0).
Saline has earned an automatic spot in the state playoffs, where it likely will play Pioneer again, and the Hornets will have to try to control Simmons again.
“I don’t know that we controlled him,’’ Palka said. “We found some issues that we need to solve defensively. Pioneer’s got a great offense. I was happy with our overall team. We moved the ball well offensively … other than being a little sloppy in the fourth quarter.’’